Yet she couldn’t ignore Sean, or how wonderfully he cared for the sweet, rambunctious five-year-old who’d landed in their school—and both their hearts. Little Samantha needed a father, and Sean would be the perfect man for the job. But she needed a mother, too…and suddenly Rachel wondered if God had a family in store for her after all.
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By Valerie Hansen
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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Chapter OneRachel Woodward's spirits soared the moment she stepped out the supply room door into the clear, warm Ozark morning. Pausing in appreciation, she took a slow, deep breath of fresh mountain air, noted the spicy, familiar aroma of the crayons and colored construction paper piled high in her arms, and smiled.
Another day in paradise. Life was as close to perfect as it could get.
Working with young children and seeing the world through their eyes made Rachel feel as if she were discovering new wonders every day. Their innocent enthusiasm was contagious. Why, if she were six instead of twenty-six, she might even give in to the urge to skip happily down the sidewalk all the way to her classroom!
She clasped the stack of supplies closer to her chest and looked around furtively. Did she dare? What would it hurt as long as no one saw her? Few students arrived this early in the morning and the other teachers were either in the staff lounge discussing their summer vacations or already in their rooms finishing last-minute preparations. The coast was clear.
Rachel's grin widened. Why not? It seemed like a sin to suppress all the elation she was feeling, simply because society dictated that adults should behave more sedately.
Who wanted to be a stuffy adult, anyway? Certainly not her.
The moment she gave in and began to skip, her joy took flight. Her skirt skimmed her calves and her shoulder-length dark hair swung with every hop.
Squinting against the bright sunshine, she blinked slowly, reverently. Thank you, Father, for finding me a job that blesses me so much.
That instant's inattention was a mistake. A large figure loomed suddenly in her path! She tried to dodge. Momentum foiled the effort. She smashed into a man's broad, solid chest with a thump and a stifled screech.
Boxes of crayons and loose drawing paper sailed into the air. The whole mess rained down on them. Crayons rolled all over the sidewalk, making a solid footing nearly impossible.
"Look out!" he shouted belatedly.
Everything happened so fast that it took Rachel a few seconds to realize why she hadn't fallen when they'd collided. Her vivid blue eyes widened and focused on the stranger whose warm, strong hands were clamped on her upper arms, steadying her.
Since Rachel was barely five-foot-two and slight, she'd often found herself at a size disadvantage. This instance, however, was much worse than usual. This man was so tall, so broad shouldered, so obviously muscular, she felt like the captive of a giant. Hopefully, a friendly one.
Her mouth suddenly went dry. Heart pounding, she fought to catch her breath and compose herself in spite of the nervous fluttering in her stomach. She knew it was normal for people to feel a surge of adrenaline when they were startled the way she'd just been, but this was ridiculous. She was not one of those faint-of-heart women who swooned every time an attractive man looked her way.
And speaking of looking ... The man's chest, covered in a pale shirt and navy blazer, fell at her eye level. Following the line of his tie upward she saw a square jaw, firm mouth, hazel eyes - and an expression clearly filled with amusement.
She was too embarrassed to mirror his good humor. With a stubborn lift of her chin she did her best to appear unruffled as she asked, "Where did you come from?"
"Cleveland." A half smile lifted one corner of his mouth.
"I meant just now," Rachel told him. "I didn't see a soul in the hall before you ran into me."
"I ran into you?"
"Yes." She tried unsuccessfully to pull away. When he continued to hold on to her, she asserted her independence clearly. "That's enough. You can let go of me now."
The man released her so abruptly, she staggered and almost wound up sitting at his feet amid the spilled crayons. Wouldn't that have been cute! As if being caught skipping wasn't bad enough.
"I didn't mean for you to throw me down," she said.
"Make up your mind." He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his slacks and struck a nonchalant pose.
Rachel studied his face and frowned, trying to place him. "Who are you, anyway?"
Watching the movement of her eyes, he must have guessed that she was casting around for something with which to write; he stooped and came up with a blue crayon and a piece of the drawing paper she'd dropped.
"I'm Sean Bates. But you don't have to bother reporting me, ma'am. I work here."
"You do?" She paused, crayon poised. "Since when? I didn't see you at the in-service meetings last week."
"That's because I just moved from up north."
"You really are from Cleveland? It wasn't a joke?"
He laughed. "Not to me."
So, this was the new school counselor she'd heard so much about. No wonder all the single women on staff were figuratively lining up to vie for his attention. He was not only good-looking, he had a charisma that was almost irresistible - to anyone but her, of course. She wasn't susceptible to that kind of romantic insanity anymore.
Smiling up at him, Rachel said, "Well then, welcome to Serenity Elementary. If I can be of any assistance, please let me know."
"Thanks. I do have one question."
"Okay. Why were you skipping down the hall like a kid?"
"Shh." She blushed, looked around furtively.
"You weren't supposed to notice that."
"It was kind of hard not to."
"Then, why didn't you get out of my way?"
"I tried. Guess I was so surprised, I didn't move quite fast enough. Sorry."
Excerpted from Samantha's Gift by Valerie Hansen Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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